What is the definition of a perfect green product?
It has to be one that leaves no carbon, plastic or water footprint during the manufacturing process. The product must last for generations and decompose fully and quickly. Are there any in the market that fits all of these criteria?
Sadly, there is not. The perfect, blameless eco-friendly product is unattainable. Even something as fabulously named as vegan leather is not.
It’s like trying to find the elixir for eternal youth.
Or sighting Bigfoot.
This is not to say that all commercial green products are unsuitable for the battle for the environment. While their halo may not be as bright as advertised, most are still clearly better for the planet than their non-green counterparts.
For information’s sake, let us look at some common eco-friendly products with a few blots in their copybook.
Some products which are not 100% green
1. Reusable Diapers
The environmental footprint of disposable diapers is huge. About 20 billion of them make it to the landfill every year in the US alone. In that context, reusable or cloth diapers is among the best ways to bring down plastic footprint.
But even cloth diapers come with their environmental baggage. Most are made of cotton, a crop which takes up arable land and necessitates the use of chemicals and insecticides.
There is also the power and water required to wash these diapers. Note here that the environmental impact of washing them in an energy-efficient machine is distinctly lesser than using a traditional one.
2. Bamboo fabrics
Bamboo is among the most eco-friendly plants out there. In fact, when you look at what they offer, there are not many better for sustainable and slow living. They are easy to grow and require no pesticides or fertilizers. Bamboo fabrics are natural and biodegradable, which is a huge plus for those into slow fashion.
So why worry?
Because the fabric is a slightly different matter than the plant from which it is made. Rayon, for example, is made from bamboo but still considered unsustainable. Turning bamboo into textiles requires the need for chemicals such as carbon disulfide which can lead to problems in the cardiovascular and nervous systems.
And we also have to question where these fabrics are being made. Most are produced in countries that have minimal or no labor laws where workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals on a day-to-day basis.
3. Commercial eco-friendly cleaning products
Do not be seduced by the tags and the advertising; there is a wolf lurking under the pretty sheep clothing. The eco-friendly cleaning products you get on the market come with chlorine, ammonia and petroleum-based solvents in them.
Most often contain 2-butoxyethanol and alcohol ethoxylate surfactants. These chemicals are absorbed through the skin and can cause damage to red blood cells, besides being an eye irritant.
4. Mulch made from rubber
The mulch from recycled rubber that we use for our outdoor vegetable patches and when growing our own indoor herb gardens is well-intentioned.
It’s not necessarily the safest though.
The tyres used to make the mulch contain chemicals that are known to negatively affect the health of factory workers.
These substances are particularly dangerous for the lungs and can lead to thyroid and development problems.
5. Reusable bottles
These are a common fixture in every random list of eco-friendly products, for good reason. They are durable and stay off the landfill for a long time.
The one issue with them is that most are made from aluminum, which is derived from bauxite ore. The consequences of mining this mineral are not so great. Bauxite ore dust can contaminate agricultural soil and it also makes its way into water sources where aquatic life pays a price. Plus, the manufacturing process is energy intensive.
How about stainless steel bottles? Surely that material is good for sustainable living. In short, yes.
Completely guilt-free? No.
The production of stainless steel involves a lot of resource and uses processes such as smelting. Plus, companies are still for some reason reluctant to recycle them. One positive is that even if stainless steel ends up on the landfill, it has no adverse effect on soil or water.
6. Solar panels
To many, solar panels are the quintessential eco-friendly item. They heavily bring down the use of electricity by tapping into the endless and free reserves of nature.
Alas, there are no green ways to manufacture them. These panels are made at 3632℉ which results in a lot of fossil fuel expenditure. The production also involves dangerous chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid and sodium hydroxide, besides a significant water footprint.
On top of that they are expensive to recycle and often end up on the landfill.
7. Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs)
CFLs are marketed heavily for their energy efficient ways. They greatly reduce carbon emissions and are cheaper than conventional bulbs in the long run.
What most buyers may not realize is that these bulbs carry mercury in them, a whooping four milligrams of it. While that figure may not seem much, it is 100 times greater than the FDA-recommended daily intake for an adult human being.
As long as the CFL is intact there is no harm done. Still, the risks of a broken bulb are too great to be ignored.
8. Paper bags
Paper bags are projected as angelic in comparison to plastic bags but they may not be the wholesome products we are led to believe.
The number one disadvantage of paper bags is that trees suffer in making them. Also, a research says that making a paper bag costs four times the energy of manufacturing a plastic one.
It is also less durable and prone to tears and, if wet, difficult to recycle.
9. Dog poop bags
Dogs, like us, need to relieve themselves. These days, their environment-friendly masters can use a biodegradable poop bag usually made of plant cellulose and containing no plastic, which is a good thing.
However, they can only be composted in special facilities that are not too keen on taking in something that does not exactly smell of roses. So, inevitably, dog poop ends up in the trash can from where they make the pilgrimage to the landfill.
While these bags may decompose quicker than plastic in the landfill, they will not compost. Rather, they decompose in a way that produces the greenhouse gas, methane.
So, do we ditch green products and revert to the same old, same old?
There’s no need to be drastic.
Almost all commercial products will have contributed to the carbon footprint in some way during the production process. They also diminish the planet’s natural resources.
So perhaps the best thing is to make peace with the fact that the perfect green product does not exist and refocus.
What can we do?
For starters, we can indulge in some information digging.
For green products we are already using, there may be “greener” options available. Let’s take the case of those we’ve already covered.
In place of rubber mulch, you can try using wood mulch instead.
The solution for bamboo fabric may be to ensure that what you are getting is completely chemical-free. Or you can opt for Lyocell, which was made from the wood flesh of eucalyptus plants originally but is now made from bamboo as well. The production of this fabric is largely free of chemical use.
Rather than a store-bought cleaning agent, you can opt for homemade ones which are as close to a perfect green product as you can get. Here’s a simple guide on how to make safer homemade cleaning products.
A ready alternative for CFLs are LED bulbs, which offer the same (perhaps greater) benefits as CFLs but do not contain mercury in them.
What to do if there are no “greener” alternatives?
In this case, we are left with a simple choice. We compare the product against non-green competition and pick the one that is less harmful to the planet.
This can be achieved by tallying each product’s environmental footprint through the three stages of its life cycle.
- How they are made (What’s the carbon footprint during production?)
- How long they last (Are they more durable than other alternatives?)
- What happens when their life cycle ends (Do they end up in the landfill? Are they decomposable?)
There are other factors too, such as how we use the product. For example, take the case of paper bags versus plastic bags. As long as the consumer uses them responsibly and for a long time, their recyclability and capacity to decompose make paper bags far better choices than plastic bags.
That, or you can always make your own paper bags from pages of old books. Here are more ideas on how to reuse your old books.
Also, if in doubt, research the company offering them.
Ask hard questions. Are they manufacturing paper from forests that are managed properly? Are the trees that are felled being replaced with other trees?
All said and done, you’ll find almost all eco-friendly products to be better options than those that are not. No, they are not flawless but till perfect green products see the light of day, the planet is safer when we use them.
Now that we’ve talked about green products what about green customers?
Green consumers can be broadly divided into three groups. Find out which category you belong to.
- Guilty about not having joined the movement earlier
- Starts with one activity and then increase them over time
- Open to change if they see that their actions are having an impact
- Concerned with products than with organizations
- Don’t seek information too actively
- More likely to take in information without examining the sources
- May be influenced by the opinion of leaders in the field
- Prioritizes sustainability
- Excellent knowledge of sustainability ideas
- Active seekers of information
- Open to accepting the word of non-mainstream but specialized sources
- Willing to relax the rules for ONE conscious albeit small exception. For this purchase, they will break the ethical code and justify their actions
- Most prevalent group
- Focused complete on one aspect of sustainability; example, recycling
- Not fully committed in other aspects of the eco-movement besides their area
How much research do you do undertake on commercial eco-friendly products before you buy them? Do you check the background of the companies that manufacture them? Let us know in the comments.